Are Parents Helping Or Enabling Their Adult Children?

The primary job of a parent is to prepare their children for how the world really works. We teach and train our children from childhood the knowledge and skills necessary to become independent adults, self-sufficient and upstanding members of society.

In the real world, you don’t always get what you want.

Many young adults today have unrealistic expectations when they initially go out on their own. Many feel they are entitled to immediately live a middle-class life style (or better), because that’s what they’re used to, and because they haven’t learned that there is a difference between helping and enabling.

They weren’t born, or were very young children, during the years their parents struggled to make ends meet, pay their bills (and on time), having to eat hot dogs and beans instead of steak dinners, struggling to live within their means.

Many young adults are living at home with their parents, not out of true need, but out of what I refer to as the “Whine Factor.” They whine about the costs of housing, and how they just “couldn’t possibly live in a tiny little apartment, in a sub-standard neighborhood.” They whine about having to live on red beans and rice, ramen noodles, or macaroni and cheese, because their current salary doesn’t allow for the kinds of meals they were used to at their parents home. (Someone get me a tissue…..snif)

What happened to teaching our children how the Real World is?! That in order to have the things you want, you have to work very hard. That you have to perhaps work two jobs instead of one, all the while going to college? Many young adults, some who now have children of their own, believe their parents somehow “owe them” financial assistance, to rescue them from the burden of their own poor money-management habits! What?! Excuse ME…..?!

Let me see if I get this right. Young adults, married or living together, working full-time jobs, with or without a child to support, choose to spend their money frivolously rather than ensuring they are living within their means, and when they run into financial trouble and can’t pay their bills, the parents OWE it to their children to rescue them?! Sometimes even expected to “help” many, many times over? Huh?! Parents, listen very carefully: There is a big difference between helping and enabling adult children, and if you don’t figure it out now and put an immediate stop to the enabling, it will never end.

Maybe I’m being a little too tough. Naw, I don’t think so. I’m of the thinking that if my grown, adult children, CHOOSE to spend their money on things they “want” rather than their “needs” (like a place to live, utilities, food, etc.., like the rest of us do) and their electric gets shut off because of non-payment? Ok! So their food goes bad and they have to throw it away. Maybe, just maybe, it’s more of a “help” to allow them to experience the consequences of their own poor choices, in order to learn the valuable lessons needed to be grown, independent ADULTS.

Rescuing them from their choices and subsequent consequences, giving them money as a fix to their immediate self-made problem, allowing them to move back in with their parents, this is called “help”? I think it’s actually enabling our young adult children rather than help, preventing them from the realities of the real world. In the real world, you work long and hard for the things you need and want. That’s the only way to truly appreciate what you have, when you’ve worked your butt off for it all on your own.

A Sense of Entitlement
Children Who Refuse To Grow Up
Helping and Enabling – Is There A Difference?
Are You An Enabler? Identifying Early Warning Signs of Enabling Behaviors
How to Stop Enabling: When Our Grown Children Disappoint Us
Support Groups for Parents with Grown Adult Children Living at Home with Parents

Setting Boundaries With Your Adult Children As long as we continue to keep enabling our adult children, they will continue to deny they have any problems, since most of their problems are being “solved” by those around him. Only when our adult children are forced to face the consequences of their own actions—their own choices—will it finally begin to sink in how deep their patterns of dependence and avoidance have become. And only then will we as parents be able to take the next step to real healing, forever ending our enabling habits and behaviors.

Be Sociable, Share!

133 Responses to “Are Parents Helping Or Enabling Their Adult Children?”

Read below or add a comment...

  1. Mary says:

    I can’t believe I am sending this email. I have never sent an email of this type, but I am totally stymied and would love an objective, qualified opinion. It concerns my husband’s insistence (strongly against my objections) to support his niece (about 25 years old) and her two young children.

    Background: my husband & I married 6 years ago. We were both 50 yr. old and self-sufficient. We both have demanding but fairly well paying jobs, in different states, so we commute on weekends. When we married, I believe that we had agreed to move towards “downsizing” our workloads, finances, lifestyle and related stress. In terms of work stress, I am extremely conscious of the toll on me, but my husband refuses to discuss his work stress. However, he has twice, in the past few years, run to the emergency room with what he felt were life threatening events. They were just stress. (of course he denies they were stress, but the doc’s found nothing wrong). I have told him I cannot continue to endure the stress of his stress, and what is needed is downsizing the workloads. We are not getting any younger. But, now he says he wants to support a dependent family ad infinitum, is his preference.

    A year and a half ago, my husband installed this niece and her two children in a rental house that he owns. In fact, he had told me that he planned to sell the rental house as part of the downsizing, but instead he installed the niece and her family there. She has been paying the basic carrying costs on the house with a small inheritance that is rapidly running out. She is not prepared to pay for repairs, car events, and all the other contingencies of life. When the inheritance runs out, she will be flat broke other than minimal income from the job-of-the-day.

    When my husband informed me that he was installing this niece in the house, in order to “help” her, I strongly objected. My husband became completely irrational. It got so bad, he actually went to a lawyer and filed for divorce. This was over about a 10 day period between when he announced the niece was moving in, and filing the divorce. It was amazing. The prior weekend I had received a lovely anniversary card and gift from him and thought all was fine. I thought we were having a strong disagreement about the niece, but he seemed to experience it as some kind of fatal betrayal of his family by me. Eventually we discussed it, and agreed to cancel the divorce action, totally separate our finances, and set a 3-year timetable for the niece to live in the house. At the 3-year mark he agreed that he would dispose of the house and no longer subsidize the niece. (I thought that would mean selling the house, but now he has a scheme to give it to a sibling, with niece & co. still in there. Am sure he has not discussed this idea with the sibling. Sibling would be crazy to agree to such a deal.)

    Niece is as you can imagine, and no way on the road to responsible adulthood by any definition.

    Should I be setting aside my lawyer $ now, or is there a good prognosis that my husband will be able to release this relationship as he has promised (sworn up & down)? Unfortunately, he is unable to answer questions or discuss specifics related to the problem, which is of great concern to me. He has “no ideas.” I do not believe he has ever informed the niece of the timetable, or discussed her work habits or the true cost of living, with her. When I bring up such mundane subjects, he gets irrational, and communication comes to a complete halt. Other than this area, we get along well. P.S. we once went to counseling together. The counselor decided he was not hearing what she was saying and recommended that he get his own counselor, preferably a male. He completely refuses to do this and gets irrational if I bring it up.

    I feel like I am married to a cocaine addict. He insists there is no problem, and that this aspect of his life is none of my business. I strongly disagree. Please advise. Thank you.

    • Lin says:

      Hi Mary,

      Wow, what a mess. It’s such a shame that your husband refuses to discuss these things rationally and calmly with his own wife, and actually come to a “meeting of the minds” so to speak.

      The fact that he was willing to file for divorce as he did, that tells me straight-up that divorce is a definite possibility from his point of view. It’s like he’s saying loud and clear, “It’s my way or the highway”, and there is no room for discussion, differences of opinion, various options, opinions or suggestions.

      This is your life Mary, and this is the man you are married to. Having already tried the counseling route, but still he’s not willing to make any changes. I can only assume that from his point of view, he’s thinking YOU are one that needs to make changes, not him.

      To get to the point, I would absolutely suggest that you begin gathering your attorney’s fees, because from what you describe and his attitude about his obvious enabling, he has no intention whatsoever of stopping what he’s doing. And anything you say on the subject only infuriates him more. But you have every right to be concerned about what he’s doing. I mean, this is a marriage and in marriage couples need to discuss things and come to an agreement on decisions. He’s not willing to do that Mary. It’s HIS way or NO way. That is my opinion. Sorry.

      • Mary says:

        Thank you, Lin!

        Not that I love your message, but it is the truth, and it has been over a year since I have discussed this truth with anyone so directly (last one was the counselor!). It gets lonely alone in one’s head! My friends are supportive of course, but I try to avoid too much head-on tough stuff like this, over coffee…

        It is absolutely true that the surface issue here is enabling, but the more important issue is ability to negotiate and willingness to compromise. I saw a really ugly side of my husband when he surprised me with those divorce papers, and that knowledge will never leave me. I was so taken by surprise, it took me awhile to formulate my position, but I did formulate it, and your comments are bringing me back to it. I told my husband that if he ever (EVER) files for divorce like that again, there will be no further discussion, the marriage will be over. Simple. We also made the 3-year agreement regarding the niece at that time, and I suspect you are correct, he has been counting on my backpedalling, and accomodating. I only bring up the topic of the niece infrequently, because I don’t want to get into a rut of unproductive arguing. However, recently I brought it up. Discussions did not go as well as I hoped. For whatever reason I thought he might have been coming to see the light about his niece, but I was wrong. That realization caused me to back up & figure out what I now needed to say. He may have gotten the message. He is trying to “discuss” and is trying very hard to calm the waters at this point.

        There could be many reasons to modify the original 3-year agreement, but for me “keeping the peace” or “preserving the marriage” aren’t among them.

        As a “mature” person, I do have the benefit of a lot of self-knowledge and life experience. I can grieve big time, and I hate it, but I will do this rather than forfeit what truly matters to me (self-respect). That knowledge is very certain, because it has been tested and it has held, absolutely.

        Thank you for your reminder. Whether my husband has negotiated in good faith remains to be seen. My anxiety, based on the history to date, and the tremendous sadness I feel at the thought of possibly having to let go of the marriage, is what eats at me now. But the future is always an unknown, in terms of what someone else will do, and how things will turn out. Divorce is definitely a possibility. Even if my husband does not fully appreciate what is at stake, or if he does not care, I am prepared to maintain my position on the matter. My lawyer fund has been carved out.

        Thank you for reminding me of what is important. This will resolve, I will “get thru it” and I will come out the better for the whole thing. But I sure hate the process!!!

        THANK YOU!!! You have made my day, BIG TIME!

        • Lin says:

          Hi Mary,

          I’m glad I could be of some help. It’s often beneficial to discuss troubling things with a neutral party, someone not directly involved, like fellow family members and close friends. That often creates a whole new set of problems.

          I often say to people “need creates motivation“, especially when it comes to enabling parents trying to figure out how to stop enabling (or “helping”) grown adult children.

          I also say “past behavior is indicative of future behavior”. The easiest way to know if someone will change their ways (after much arguing and fighting) within marriages or relationships is by looking at their past and present behavior and/or attitude. I would like to think that your husband would “see the light” and come to his senses, but I truly believe that both you and I know that isn’t likely to happen, which means you are left with difficult personal decisions for your own life and future. Only you can make those for yourself, and whatever your decision ultimately is, I wish you all the best that life has to offer.

  2. Tiffany says:

    I can agree with this with the exception of the parent who asks their 16 year old son to drop out of high school and get a full time job to help pay her rent. The one who was supporting his own mother instead of getting the high school diploma he desperately needs to get a decent job or go to college in today’s world.

    My husband is this person. He was asked by his mother to drop out at 16. He began working full time at his grandfathers company only learning that trade. When he was young, his teachers said he may be dyslexic and his mom didn’t want the label put on him, so he never received help. His reading and writing skills are still horrible because of this and is having trouble passing a GED test. He can’t go to college until he gets his GED. At age 21, he married me and we had a baby. Our son was unplanned but we love him as much as we ever could.

    Thankfully, my mom has taken us in until we are in a financial situation that we can rent a small apartment. We live within our means. We spend no money on wants other than birthdays. We even make homemade low-cost gifts for holidays (which are made fun of by his family and we are told not to bring again – that we need to spend at least $20 on each person in a family with over 20 people at Christmas). We try our best to scrimp and save – we clip coupons, we plan our meals and shop according to the weekly ads. We only have 1 vehicle.

    My husband has been working for his grandfather still and looking for other employment as he is paid far less than his co-workers who do the same job with less experience. Who wants a hire someone without a GED or diploma? Especially in this market, they are able to pick and choose since so many qualified people are unemployed. His grandfather stopped paying him (and the other employees) a few months ago. They have been giving a 40 hr check once a month and still requiring them to work full time. Finally they agreed to lay him off. He is drawing unemployment, which barely pays for our food and electricity. My mom cannot afford to pay all of the utilities with us in the house – she does what she can but we aren’t her responsibility.

    He found an opportunity to go to truck driving school for 3 weeks at a reputable school and they will find him a job – guaranteed! We thought this was an amazing opportunity. Unfortunately, our credit is not good because of the missed paychecks in the past months. We didn’t have much credit before now anyways. My mom is unable to co-sign because of her income to debt ratio. My mother-in-law is able to co-sign but refuses to do so because we “got ourselves into this situation”.

    So while I think in most cases, yes, I agree with you. But in cases where the parents didn’t do their part, I do think they owe it to their adult children. We aren’t even asking her for money (although we did once ask for $25 to take the GED test and she refused – she is in a financial position now that she is remarried to help). The repayment for the schooling loan would actually be coming directly from his first paychecks. She doesn’t care. She would rather our family starve than help because we “got ourselves into this”.

    • Lin says:

      Hi Tiffany,

      Subscribed readers of this site know how I feel about the subject of what parents owe their adult children or don’t “owe”, and anytime someone uses that term to explain what they believe a parent should or shouldn’t do to “help” grown children, it makes the hair on the back of my neck stand straight up from frustration.

      I don’t know the reasoning behind your mother-in-law asking her son to leave high school a few years ago to help pay the bills, so I won’t criticize her for making that decision or second-guess her reasons for such a request. I have very limited knowledge or experience about dyslexia and the problems experienced by those who are dyslexic, other than what you’ve already stated in regards to difficulty with reading and writing, but I can understand the difficulties your husband must face in trying to find gainful employment under such circumstances.

      That being said…, I can also see where your mother-in-law is coming from with her refusals to “help”. You and your husband made some personal choices that bring about what I call “natural consequences”. You two chose to get married. You two also chose to have a child at a time in your lives when you’re not financially stable enough to provide for yourselves on your own, let alone as a young married couple, independent of any help from parents.

      I say you “chose” to have a child, rather than saying you had an “unplanned pregnancy”, because men and women either do what’s necessary to prevent pregnancy from occurring or they don’t. Either way, it’s still a choice, and the natural consequences that come from such a choice are quite costly. Who should pay for the choices made by seemingly mature, grown adult kids? The so-called mature, grown adult kids; that’s who should pay.

      I don’t see anything within your comment that suggests that you are working full-time or part-time to try and help yourself, but that your husband has been working a low wage job and is trying to find a better paying job despite not having a high school diploma or GED. I’m pretty confident that it didn’t come as a complete shock to you that your husband had no high school diploma or GED to help him find a good job before you got married, but you chose to get married anyway.

      That is what is commonly referred to as “putting the cart before the horse”. Doing things in the wrong order and then wonder why things aren’t going very well. Kids need to finish high school, go to college (if at all possible), get settled into a job/career of their choosing, establish themselves financially and independently of the parents, get married (if they so choose) and then start a family (if they want children). Not the other way around.

      I’m glad your “mom is unable to co-sign because of her income to debt ratio”, because it would be a huge mistake on her part to do so. Your mother-in-law is right in that you two got yourselves into this situation, and you’ll both have to work very hard to get yourselves out of it. The assertion that your mother-in-law “doesn’t care”, because she refuses to give in and co-sign a high-risk loan, is ridiculous. As long as you and your husband do what’s necessary to bring home a paycheck, no one is going to starve.

      Maybe, just maybe, the struggles and stress you’re experiencing will prove to be a positive motivator for both of you to work hard to provide for yourselves and your child, and the lessons you will have learned may help prevent your child from growing up to make the same exact mistakes in judgment.

  3. Tiffany says:

    Okay, I get your idea – kids should pay their parents bills before they get an education and then pay their own bills without an education when they become an adult.

  4. Tiffany says:

    Oh, and I’m in college full time. I’ve looked for employment, but nothing will pay me enough to pay daycare without experience or college education.

    • Lin says:


      You’re obviously wanting me to criticize and judge your mother-in-law for the choice she made to have her son quit school and go to work full time. As I said, “Kids need to finish high school, go to college (if at all possible), get settled into a job/career of their choosing, establish themselves financially and independently of the parents, get married (if they so choose) and then start a family (if they want children).”

      That alone should have told you that a parent should never ever have their child quit school and just work to help the family pay bills. In my view, it would have made more sense for your husband to continue and graduate from high school and perhaps work part time in the evenings and weekends to help out some, rather than quitting school altogether just to work.

      Your mother-in-law isn’t here to defend herself or explain her decision, and she may have had what she felt were very good reasons to do what she did. How do I know this? I know because my own parents took me out of high school (religious reasons from their beliefs), and their reasons for doing so seemed reasonable to them at the time. It didn’t and hasn’t affected me at all in getting good paying jobs, nor did it affect my ability to learn a trade and establish myself in a career that pays well and get a few years of college under my belt, but that was many many years ago and things are different now.

      Tiffany, you and I could go back and forth umpteen times about the choice your mother-in-law made with her son, but it won’t get us anywhere. For whatever the reasons were, like it or not, it happened. He could have made the choice to go back and finish high school on his own and go to college, but he chose to get married and have a child despite not having a complete education, and now he’s struggling to make enough money for the three of you to live on your own.

      Many colleges provide free daycare (or virtually free) for students attending college to help. With a program like that in place, kids are able to go to college and work too, with the parents taking turns caring for the child while the other parent is in school and vice versa.

      You can spend your life blaming your husband’s mother for the choice made and believing she OWES him this or that as an adult. The problem is, from the “kid” point of view, what kids think parents owe them starts at a very young age and throughout the teen years and adult years, and the expiration date for help or what is “owed” doesn’t exist in a kids mind. That’s an Entitlement Epidemic, not help.

  5. Tiffany says:

    Well, considering the fact that he had already been working a part time (28-30 hour per week) job at night after school, it just wasn’t good enough for her. He needed to pay the bills. She was using her child support money of his to pay for her clothes, shoes, hair, nails, etc.

    Even after we were married, she was still needing our help with her bills. My husband was giving her money to help pay her bills because she wasn’t receiving child support anymore.

    My husband has tried to go to school – for a degree you must have a GED or diploma. He is in classes to get a GED. He works 50-60 hours per week and goes to school 3 nights per week. I go to school 2 nights per week and do most of my schooling from the computer. The college does offer childcare but only for your classes – not to work.

    I think you base your opinions too broadly. Parents don’t owe kids anything. That’s pretty broad. Instead, parent’s who raise their children correctly don’t owe their children. Parents who are being supported by their children most certainly do owe their child something.

  6. faith says:

    This girl isn’t listening and doesn’t realize this is not a blog! this is a blog about the book. Did you read it? then, go boo-hoo to someone else and stop playing the victim!

  7. faith says:

    I believe you are making up stories about this poor woman who is not hear to defend her self.
    My son has done that to me on several occasions!
    I’m not buying your story!
    You want us to side with you when its obvious from your posts you want to humiliate your mother-in-law.

  8. Debbie says:

    I have written before in regards to my son who has borrowed over and over again. Yes, I WAS the enabler and have learned a valuable lesson from it. On a continued bright note, our son is taking care of himself and has not borrowed anything since my last entry and will not borrow because we won’t be lending again. He is making payments on his existing loan with us.

    I view Tiffany’s situation very different from my own. If her story is the truth, it is very sad that her husband was asked to quit school. I truly think they are working all the angles towards independence but they just need HELP to get there. I hope she looks toward her state assisted programs to get it or someone does rise up and HELPS them get on the right track.

    I do not see a couple asking for hand out after handout. I see a couple asking for assistance to get on the track so that they can go on and make a life for themselves. I give you credit Tiffany for wanting more in your life for you and your child. Seek out the help from programs and continue your schooling. Stand tall and believe in yourself. With the right amount of determination…you will make it!!!!